Prime Minister Robert Abela has ruled out giving his MPs a free vote in parliament on the bill that would legalise cannabis use for those over 18, after a number of Church organisations called on him to do so.

“Cabinet and the government parliamentary group followed the consultation process attentively and held an internal discussion process. This reform will pass with the vote of the government’s united parliamentary group,” the prime minister’s spokesman said.

He said the final vote on the new cannabis law would come after an extensive consultation process which government ministers and backbenchers followed carefully.

The bill has passed through committee stage in parliament and is due for its third and final reading. The opposition has said it will vote against the bill because it goes against the interests of children and the common good.

On Wednesday, Church organisations called on Abela to allow his MPs to vote according to their conscience and not along party lines.

They accused the government of ignoring all their suggested changes and rushing it through the committee stage of the debate.

Caritas Malta, OASI Foundation, the Secretariat for Catholic Education and the Church Schools’ Association said in a joint statement that, despite numerous reasonable and balanced amendments, the government “remained adamant to pass a very weak regulatory framework which risks leaving a massive negative impact on our society, especially among children, youths and the most vulnerable”.

During the committee meeting, the organisations urged the government to raise the legal age of smoking cannabis from 18 to 25.

The questions and dilemmas posed by the legal recreational use of cannabis cannot be left to personal opinions and emotions

They also urged it to extend the permitted distance between cannabis clubs and schools, youth centres and post-secondary institutions from a mere 250 metres to one kilometre.

They called for a doubling of the fines for smoking cannabis in front of children and in public, disallowing the cultivation of cannabis in residences adjacent to schools and better regulation of the amount of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) allowed in cannabis.

They also expressed serious reservations about the proposed educational campaigns, which they fear may include ‘responsible use’ of cannabis.

The University of Malta’s Department of Public Policy within the Faculty of Economics, Management and Accountancy also insisted on Thursday that “strict party discipline should not be imposed on any parliamentary grouping”.

This would allow each member of parliament the freedom to debate and take a vote in accordance with his or her conscience, informed by knowledge shared by medical experts.

The department said the bill represents a significant effort to address “certain lacunas in this domain that need to be regulated” but that it also raises several pertinent questions that need to be addressed in public fora, most importantly in parliament.

It said the issue of enforcement needs to be addressed as well. The bill imposes restrictions and limitations but does not specify what measures the police and other authorities should take to ensure respect for all the provisions in the law.

“In the case of cannabis, the state cannot afford to go wrong in regard to the ‘recreational’ use of cannabis because, like any narcotic, it can have a corrosive effect on the health of individual users and, in the long term, on the collective health of our communities.

“In this context, there needs to be a more detailed exposition of the functions of the new regulatory authority to be set up in order to regulate this activity,” it said.

The department also called for more evidence on the effects of recreational cannabis use on health and the impact on the markets for illicit narcotics as well as on policing and police morale.

“The questions and dilemmas posed by the legal recreational use of cannabis cannot be left to personal opinions and emotions, nor to the lobbying of interested parties or to party discipline that puts our MPs in a straightjacket when taking a vote in parliament.

“The public outcry by constituted bodies and NGOs for more research on the implications of cannabis use on individuals, families, the economy and society should be respected and acted upon,” the department said.

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